For the first ten years or so of my life pride of place in our upstairs bathroom was taken by a framed plastic bag. The bag was from the Armchair Sailor Bookstore in Newport, Rhode Island and had been acquired by my dad at some point before I can remember. I’m guessing it originally contained charts or pilot books or something, either way, it was definitely not intended to be hung on a wall.
Aside from the logo, the visible side of the bag had printed on it an illustrated version of a story which, I learned much later, originally comes from a book by the American painter, printmaker nd thoroughly odd individual Rockwell Kent, entitled N by E. The story is only a 410 words long so I definitely recommend reading it here (http://themuseumofdrunkenart.blogspot.co.uk/2010/10/certain-man.html) but for those unwilling to expend the energy required to click on the link, the basic idea is that the (male) protagonist is so sick of his repetitive, mediocre and thoroughly comfortable American suburban existence he decides that the only solution is to build a boat to sail to the South Seas/Paradise.
This takes a considerable amount of time and effort and the story concludes thus: “And so in the growing excitement of the enterprise the years flew by; the boat was nearly done. What hope must have beamed in the commuters countenance, what intimation of approaching glory!… Was not the boat itself an unfoldment of his own spirit, an opening of the book of his own dreams, the materializing in such symbol as the world might understand of his secret self?… So, at almost the very moment that this poor man was about to step into this swan boat, his wife, we only guess confronted him.
“What,” –arms akimbo- “do you think you’re going to do with that boat?”
“ I was going,” he answered with quiet determination, to sail to Par- to the South Seas.”
And there, true or not, ends one of the saddest stories in the world.”
I didn’t really notice the bag whilst it still hung there, but at some point, despite the glass, it had disintegrated so much in the sunlight that my mother removed it and binned it. It took about two years for either me or my dad to clock this, but when we did it became the subject of incessant dramatic retellings. The speaker would give a brief outline of the story and then quote the three lines before the final one, finishing (incorrectly) on a crescendo with “Oh no you’re not”. This was followed by some kind of accusation directed at my mother about her deliberate and malicious destruction of the holy relic, after which we would segue into other stories; a popular one being the boat advert my father allegedly found in the Trade-It magazine entitled “Wife Forces Sale.” Most of the time the pair of us were at each other’s throats when I was a kid so this was a rare moment of unity in perceived adversity, which I guess is why my Mum tolerated it.
The thing is, despite myself, I still think what the plastic-bag-story was pushing is a decidedly appealing narrative. Brave, thoughtful individual, sick of being just another cog in “the machine” does the only thing he can to try and live authentically- takes to the road. It’s hard to deny the romantic pull of someone like Christopher McCandless’s story (if you haven’t seen it “Into the Wild”, do,) even though if you strip away the romance and the good looks you get a disgustingly self-obsessed individual, who in failing to properly consider the consequences of his action, destroyed the lives of those who cared about him. McCandless, however, rather from being the outlier belonged (and very much saw himself as belonging) to an well established tradition of tortured, predominantly middle class, white, American men, who couldn’t stand being crippled by society, and thus were compelled by their consciences to strike out, either alone or with other similarly enlightened individiuals.
In case this wasn’t already clear I speak as someone whose copy of Walden has an absurd amount of post-its in it (“We are for the most part more lonely when we go abroad among men than when we stay in our chambers”- aah, just gold!) and who after reading the “Roman Candle” passage from On the Road for the first time in my youth, made a concerted effort never to yawn again. However, despite my temperamental alignment with all the gang (Thoreau, Whitman, London, The Beat lot, Hunter S, Pirsig etc) they’re clearly all guilty of the same thing. Even W H Davies, who is indisputedly starving for most of “Autobiography of a Supertramp”, makes it clear that a significant motivation for taking to the road is to shuck the oppressive chains of society (a reason why, as Bernard Shaw notes in his introduction to it, people were worried about it spreading the dangerous and socially destructive appeal of the open road.) In fact I think part of what I love so much about Lolita is that the latter half of it is, in a sense, also the story of someone trying to escape the norms of his society by taking to the road, but just not in the nice, fluffy ‘aah freedom’ sort of way.
To return to Rockwell Kent, it’s clear that the story isn’t just “the saddest story in the world” it’s also meant to be funny, and funny because the ending is (we think) hopelessly predictable. I’m aiming to do a proper post on this at some point, but the women-pleading-with/forcing-her-man-to-stay-at-home-and-not-to-go-off-rambling is a trope which has definitely had some mileage. Kerouac’s women, with the possible exception of Mary Lou, spend their whole time trying to persuade their men-folk to stay with them, and hate Dean accordingly for stirring them all up to go. Of course our commuter’s wife tells him he can’t sail to the south seas, that’s what women (as the eternal representative of society )do, whilst the men just need space to roam wild and free over the plains, like buffalo.
Here’s the rub; it seems that if you look at the people who actually travel around America (in life not fiction) this particular kind of hero dwindles to a definite minority. I spent the last couple of days reading Kath Weston’s book “Travelling Light: On the Road With America’s Poor”, which, whilst I haven’t been leaping to recommend to people, is nevertheless a good counterpoint to something like Richard Grant’s disgustingly soppy book. They cover many of the same themes (they both spend time hanging out with tramps after all) but she doesn’t try and shoehorn the stories of those she meets into the aforementioned narrative. The people documented in her book are, unsurprisingly, both male and female, both young and almost entirely immobile with old age, and of various sexualities, races and cultures. Her focus is restricted to poverty (as is obvious from the title), and so many of her reported encounters are with people on the move to looking for jobs, buts it’s made clear that this is one of the numerous reasons people might take to the road, and few of them are as simple or come from as privileged a place as the quest for self-expression.
This is what my project, in its very minimal way, is going to try and dig at: the links between various underprivileged groups in society, intra-US migration, and the kinds of narratives which are able to bind these together. I realise that I’m pretty much in the precise group that I’ve argued is boring and monopolizing the public consciousness (at least in the UK) about American travel. In my defence; firstly I don’t intend on writing too much about myself, and secondly what can I really do except be a bit self-aware and embarrassed about this fact?
Just before I packed for the states (which mostly involved throwing whatever clean underwear I could track down into a rucksack with a heap of blister plasters) I made a pile of all the American travel books I could find that I’d read , to jog my memory. My Dad, who bought two very decrepit motorbikes when he was about my age and has owned them ever since, picked up Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance from the top. “This book is what got me into old motorbikes when I was younger” he said, and then, after a pause for maximum effect, “now I think I’m going to sell them on Ebay.”